When everything is going well, it is easy to take a lot of things for granted. When your career is on track and your social life is great, the future can seem bright to the distant horizon. At times like this--especially if you are younger--it can seem like life only gets better from here. It is easy to forget--you may not even think about it in the first place--that it can all change very quickly.
This is how it was for me until that day when, at the age of 38, a doctor knelt in front of me as I sat, groggy from anesthesia, after a diagnostic procedure intended to remove a glass bladder stone. I remember his words like they were yesterday.
In his Eastern European bass voice, the physician said, "I am sorry, Mr. Higgins. I have to inform you that you have a very rare liver disease. We don't know what causes it and there is no treatment for it beyond trying to treat for symptoms. It is slow and progressive and, in a matter of time, you will need to receive a liver transplant or you will die. These things are difficult to estimate, but if I had to guess, I would say thta you have about a year. I am very sorry."
One year. Anyone who has shared this experience with me knows the feelings that pass through one's mind. A numbness takes over; a kind of disinterested feeling like "Hum, that's interesting. I bet it will be fine." Shortly, however, and as one begins to really consider the implications of the situation he or she is in, other emotions bubble to the top.
I remember crying in bed and saying to my wife, Esther, "I feel like I have been robbed! I am only 38 years old! The best of life should be in front of me!" All my hopes and dreams seemed to have been snatched away.
Interestingly, many of the things that seemed important to me in the past suddenly appeared ridiculous in hindsight. How much time had I spent worrying about the future? How many hours did I spend longing after the next big step in my career? How many times did I get upset about standing in line or stupid things like that? Once you realize that you might never have the opportunity to stand in line again, it suddenly seems a little more desirable.
Issues like how much I weighed, whether my hair was going to fall out, what I looked like, how much money I made suddenly took their rightful place on the priority list. I realized that relationships were near the "real" top of the list. Taking time to go outside and look at the moon as it rose in the east, laying in a lawn chair and watching the stars, singing, laughing, being a person of honor--these are the things that began taking my full attention.
Surprisingly, a year came and went. I was still alive. Years passed and each New Year's Eve found me going out into the night and pondering life, the universe and everything. I was learning to live in the Now without constantly worrying about an unknown future.
While my doctor had been wrong on his timing, he was right about one thing. My illness was progressive and, while I continued to live and work, each passing year was getting significantly more difficult. Eventually, it was hard to get out of bed. Walking was challenging. My body began to just break down as my liver was failing.
Still, few people--especially those I worked with--knew I was ill. Only a few of my clients knew.
As I walked down the hall of my office and said good morning to people with my best smile and they returned in kind, I wondered how many other people were fighting their own battles and putting on a brave front? How many were, themselves, dying from cancer or some other illness? How many were suffering through a divorce, the loss of a child or parent, or were going trough some other difficult time in their life but, like me, suffered in secret and said to everyone, "Things are going pretty good!" when asked "How's it going?"
I developed a lot of empathy for people during those dark days.
Then, on August 24, 2012, in the middle of the night before I was scheduled to fly to Southern California on business I received the call that every person waiting on a transplant waitlist both longs for and fears. I was told by the physician at the other end of the line, "We have a liver for you if you are willing to accept it."
You might think that I would say "Yes! Of course I am willing to accept it." If you had asked me beforehand, I would have thought that would be my response. However, my actual response was different. Instead, two thoughts immediately came to my mind.
First was the realization that if I accept this offer and go down this road, there is no turning back. Everything will be different. The Jim Higgins that was before will be gone and what will remain is a different, a new, Jim Higgins. While I was ill and obviously failing, at least I know what to expect. Saying "yes" was really traveling into the unknown.
You don't simply jump into situations like that.
The second thought that came to my mind was the realization that this gift came at a terrible cost. Somebody had died and made it possible for me to live. They had paid the ultimate cost and, both they and their families, had had the kindness and forethought to agree that they should be an organ donor. Here is a person that I never new and whom I could never thank and whom I could never repay whose life and death provided the opportunity for me to be free of the illness that was destroying me.
Of course I accepted this gift.
The transplant itself was perhaps the most remarkable experience I have ever had. I cannot adequately put into words the experience. I know that I arrived at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center (UCSF) operating room at 6:45 AM. I kissed my wife goodbye before being taken in. I remember the operating room theater and some vague preparations. I also remember feeling at peace.
The operation took 8 hours. When I awoke, the first conscious thought that I can recall was "I am healed". It was just like that. I had heard physicians describe how, when they finally release the clamps on a new liver it turns pink and starts working immediately to filter all the poison that had been building up in the patient's body. By the time I woke up in Intensive Care, my new liver must have had a field day.
Perhaps that is one of the things that makes receiving a transplant such a unique experience. You go in on the verge of death. You come out in serious condition but, if everything works correctly, you are healed. It is truly amazing.
After my transplant, everything changed. My priorities were completely different. My personal needs were different. I was literally a different person.
I sometimes wonder if the recipient gains something of the donor. Whereas before my transplant (even back when I was healthy) I was anxious, worried about the future, easily frustrated, didn't like to be alone, and craved acknowledgement, afterward I experienced real peace.
Today, in addition to being completely healthy, I enjoy and protect my time alone as a place to think and ponder the joy of what it means to be alive. While I continue to have a passion for doing interesting work and working with clients to provide great service, the majority of what I do is about relationships. Whether I am working or volunteering, or walking my dogs, or working around the yard, now I do it with and ever present sense of appreciation for the one who helped make me who I am.
In 2013 I had the good fortune to meet the family of my donor and learn about her. Wendy was in her early 50s when she died from complications after surgery. She was an educator and had dedicated her life to helping children. She was a tireless advocate who helped launch and manage a variety of programs designed to help those who could not help themselves. Her accomplishments were so great and both her competence and love for others were so recognized in that in January 2012, the Governor of Nevada signed a proclamation that named January 20, 2012 "Wendy Whipple Day" in her honor.
This is the hero to whom, in large extent, I owe my life. Her picture is on my desk. I thank God for her and strive to live each day in a manner worthy of such a precious gift. It is in this spirit that I seek to run my business. I will serve others to the best of my ability. I will seek to make my little corner of the world, wherever I find myself, a better place.
So to Wendy, and all those like her who have taken the step to ensure that, should they experience their own ultimate tragedy and who choose to turn it into a beautiful thing by signing up to be an organ donor, I thank you. The Higgins Group, LLC will operate in a way that will honor your courage and gift.
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